Ten years ago this Tuesday, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and by any count — and there have been many — the toll has been devastating.
So far, about 4,400 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, and the combined costs of the war come to an astounding $2 trillion, including future commitments like veteran care.
So where do we stand today?
Stephen Hadley was the national security adviser under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009, and part of the White House team that helped sell the war to the public.
Looking back, Hadley tells NPR's Jacki Lyden, everyone — not just the White House — was wrong in citing Saddam Hussein's alleged stock of weapons of mass destruction as a reason for the invasion.
"Republicans thought he had them, Democrats thought he had them, the Clinton administration thought he had them [and] the Bush administration thought he had them," Hadley says. "We were all wrong."
Hadley says the initial invasion was a success, but what followed took longer and cost an enormous amount in terms of both lives and money. He stands by the judgment, however, that Saddam was a threat to the U.S. and the region.
Hadley also stands by an opinion he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that the U.S. would "leave behind an Iraq that would be able to govern itself, defend itself, sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror." He says Iraq, though far from perfect, is accomplishing many of those things, but that the war in Syria is putting a lot of pressure on it.
"I think this is a country that is taking responsibility for its security both internally and externally," he says.
Regarding the human toll on both sides, Hadley admits that "clearly the situation got away from us."
"The cost of getting it back under control ... was too high in terms of dollars, in terms of lives of Americans [and] in terms of lives of Iraqis," he says. "It's one of the reasons some of us have been arguing that we need to do something to bring the war in Syria to a close."
Iraq's 'Imperfect' Leader
A memo Hadley wrote in 2006 for Cabinet-level officials caused some waves when it was leaked to the press that same year. In it, Hadley expressed concerns about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ability to combat sectarian violence.
That memo, Hadley says, was written while President Bush was considering whether to dramatically increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq. The administration questioned whether Maliki was committed to an inclusive Iraq.
With Hadley's advisement, the president concluded he would be an inclusive leader and the decision was made to move ahead with the surge, Hadley says.
"Maliki has a lot of challenges, he's an imperfect leader," he says. "But I think he met the test that was set out in that memo and the president was confident that Maliki would be a partner in the surge that ultimately brought an end to hostilities in Iraq."
The War's Lasting Scars
Even though the war officially ended in December 2011, there are those who still live with its legacy and always will.
Shannon Meehan is a veteran living in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and three young sons. In 2007, Meehan was 24 and a tank platoon leader in the city of Baqubah.
Meehan was on a mission to re-establish control in one of the country's most dangerous sectors, he tells Lyden, when his soldiers came upon a house they believed to be booby-trapped.
"I called in a mortar strike in what I thought was an effort to protect the lives of my soldiers," Meehan says.
The mortar rounds destroyed the house, but Meehan's relief at hitting the target quickly changed.
"We received word that there was an innocent family ... huddled inside that house that I'd just destroyed," he says. "Trying to reconcile what I'd just done ... I was just overwhelmed with disbelief and guilt immediately."
Meehan says he struggles with the memory of that incident every day. Now retired, he lives with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote about his experiences in a memoir, Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq.
Meehan is far from alone living with his invisible wounds. The National Council on Disabilities says up to 40 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from one of these "signature injuries."
Aymen Salihee lives in Baghdad, 6,000 miles from Meehan. Like Meehan, the 37-year-old civil engineer is a father to young boys. He suffers from a different Army mistake.
In 2005, an American sniper in Baghdad shot Salihee's brother, Yasser, by mistake. Yasser was driving when he made a wrong turn onto a street that had been cleared by soldiers.
"Suddenly, he faced two American soldiers," Salihee says. "One of them shot in the front of his car, and the other shot him directly in his head, without any warning shots from the Americans."
Though time has passed, Aymen Salihee is pessimistic about Iraq's future.
"It's not good; it's not better," he says. "At this time, it makes no difference between Saddam's regime and now."
American taxpayers have spent about $60 billion on rebuilding Iraq, and a Boston University tally finds about $8 billion has been requested for Iraq spending this year. A recent inspector general's report to Congress, however, shows the huge costs have yielded too few results.
"It's really striking to contemplate how invisible the American footprint has become here," says Ernesto Londono, a Washington Post correspondent covering the anniversary in Baghdad. "You look around at the neighborhoods where Americans invested a lot of money and there's very little that is visible."
Londono was in Baghdad at the peak of sectarian bloodshed in 2007. Today, he says, the picture is better.
"Some people are doing very well," he tells Lyden. "You see a surprising amount of wealth on the street. ... Iraqis are more plugged in digitally than they've ever been. This used to be a hugely repressed ... [and] now Iraqis have one or two cellphones, and everyone is on Facebook."
But sectarian tension is still evident, Londono says, especially at the political level; many Sunnis accuse the Shiite-dominated government of being authoritarian. At the street level, however, he says things have changed dramatically.
"At the end of sectarian war in 2008, there came a point where people realized that they were being set up by hard-line groups ... and they were being foolishly pushed into this really brutal fight," he says. "But the war definitely left scars; the neighborhoods that were mixed before are nowhere near as mixed now."
Hadley says the country now faces encroachment from Iran and the sectarian war in Syria.
The fear, he says, is that if the opposition is successful in toppling Bashar Assad in Syria, that sentiment might bleed over into Iraq and spark a sectarian war to topple Maliki. With the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation, he says, Iraq is not getting needed support.
"The United States is not playing the role it needs to play in terms of helping Iraq get through this difficult transition period," he says.
As for the future of the U.S. role in Iraq, the American presence has shifted from the military to the CIA, which is covertly helping Iraq build up its counterterrorism operations.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, soul-searching at a Republican conclave, plus tweeting and meeting an introspective Lance Armstrong. But first, 10 years ago on Tuesday, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
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LYDEN: By any count - and there have been many - the toll has been devastating. In blood, about 4,400 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead. And in treasure, combined costs of the war come to an astounding $2 trillion. A new report out of Brown University finds that includes future commitments like veteran care. Our cover story today: the Iraq War, where we stand 10 years later.
Even though the war officially ended in December of 2011, there are those who still live with its legacy and always will. Shannon Meehan is a veteran living in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and three young sons. Back in 2007, Meehan was 24 years old and a tank platoon leader in the city of Baqubah. He was on a control mission traveling house to house making sure they were clear.
SHANNON MEEHAN: My soldiers came upon one house in particular that basically appeared to be booby-trapped to us. And I called in a mortar strike in what I thought was an effort to protect the lives of my soldiers. And mortar rounds were fired and etched through the sky, making their way to this house. And as they came in, they destroyed the target, they destroyed the house. And at first, I remember feeling this sense of relief.
However, that feeling quickly changed when we received word that there was an innocent family inside that house. There was a mother and father, and their children huddled inside that house that I had just destroyed. And trying to reconcile what I had just done destroying this family with what our mission was, you know, they're in direct contrast with each other, and I was just overwhelmed with a sense of disbelief and guilt immediately.
LYDEN: I'm wondering how it is that you live or cope with the image of what happened to the family.
MEEHAN: Honestly, it's terribly difficult. It's something that I struggle with almost every day. And I remember having our first child. And certainly, every parent or to-be parent feels, you know, a great deal of weight upon them, but I just felt like it was different. I was bringing into this world this beautiful gift that I had robbed another father of, this beautiful gift that I, myself, had destroyed. So there is this heaviness surrounding that.
LYDEN: Also, in 2007, Shannon Meehan stepped on a tripwire and was thrown skyward in an IED blast. He suffered from a ruptured eardrum, shrapnel wounds and traumatic brain injury. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds but says he struggled to take pride in the medal.
MEEHAN: I just can't help but think of that family. You know, their deaths will go unhonored, and they'll soon be forgotten. And there's nothing that's going to change that, yet I am sitting here with a medal for my injuries, which are far less than anything of what that family had felt.
LYDEN: Meehan says he's fearful about how this war will be remembered.
MEEHAN: That it'll be remembered as the mistake war, the war that we shouldn't have been in, or the illegal war. And to hear that our efforts and the deaths of our friends will go down as nothing more than a mistake is damning.
LYDEN: That's Shannon Meehan, a retired Army captain, living with traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, which has come to be known as the signature injuries of the Iraq War. Meehan's written about his experiences in a memoir "Beyond Duty."
Six thousand miles away in Baghdad lives 37-year-old Aymen Salihee. Like Meehan, he's a father to young boys and he's coping with a shattered life.
AYMEN SALIHEE: In 2005, I lost my brother, Yasser, by mistake by one of the American snipers, shot him in one of the Baghdad air strikes.
LYDEN: Salihee's brother, Yasser, was driving for a haircut one morning when he made a wrong turn onto a street that had been cleared by the American soldiers.
SALIHEE: And suddenly, he faced two American soldiers. One of them shot in the front of his car, and the second directly shot him in his head.
LYDEN: Salihee's brother, Yasser, was my own translator when I reported from Iraq. And later, in 2006, NPR did an investigative story on the shooting. Aymen Salihee lives with it every day.
SALIHEE: I miss him. I'm thinking of him all the time. Yasser means a lot for me.
LYDEN: The time has passed and Aymen Salihee is married and is working as a civil engineer. He's pessimistic about Iraq's future.
SALIHEE: It's not good. It's not better. And this time, it makes no difference between Saddam's regime and now.
ERNESTO LONDONO: It's really striking to contemplate how invisible the American footprint has become here.
LYDEN: Ernesto Londono is a Washington Post Pentagon correspondent now in Baghdad covering the anniversary. About $60 billion in American taxpayer funds have gone toward the rebuilding of Iraq, but a recent inspector general's report to Congress says the result simply don't show it.
LONDONO: You look around at the neighborhoods where Americans invested a lot of money and there's really very little that is visible.
LYDEN: Londono was in Baghdad in 2007 at the peak of the sectarian violence. Today, he says, if you're one of the lucky few, the picture is better.
LONDONO: Some people are doing very well. You see a surprising amount of wealth out on the street. You see it in the cars people drive. You see it in the shops that have opened. You see it in the little shopping malls that you're starting to see in some of the more affluent parts of the city. Iraqis are more plugged in digitally than they've ever been obviously. This used to be a hugely repressed society that was essentially cut out from the world. And now, you know, Iraqis have one, two cellphones. Everybody's on Facebook.
LYDEN: But sectarian tension is still evident, especially at the political level.
LONDONO: You have a government dominated by Shias that many Sunnis accuse of being authoritarian, of using its security apparatus to marginalize and to crack down on them. At the street level, however, things have changed dramatically. I think at the end of the sectarian war here in 2008, there came a point where people realized that they were being set up by hard-line groups, by the militias, by the insurgency, and that they were sort of being foolishly pushed into this really brutal fight. But, you know, the war definitely left scars. The neighborhoods that were mixed before are nowhere nearly as mixed now.
LYDEN: The Washington Post Ernesto Londono.
Stephen Hadley was part of the White House team that helped sell the war to the public. He then served as the national security adviser to President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009. Hadley sat down with me this week to talk about the anniversary. I asked him whether citing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as a reason for invading Iraq was a mistake.
STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, clearly, he did not have the stocks of weapons of mass destruction that the intelligence community, not only in this country but other countries as well, thought. And Republicans thought he had them. Democrats thought he had them. The Clinton administration thought he had them. The Bush administration thought he had them. We were all wrong.
Second, obviously, the invasion initially was very successful, but what followed took longer and was - paid enormous costs in terms of money and lives, both American and Iraqi. But I think the central judgment that this was a man who was a national security threat to the region and to us here at home was true. And if you think about what Iran is doing in terms of pursuing nuclear weapons, you can bet Saddam Hussein would not have been left behind.
LYDEN: In a 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed, you wrote that we met our objectives to leave behind an Iraq that would be able to govern itself, sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror. That was almost three years ago. Do you still believe that to be true?
HADLEY: I do. I think we met our narrow national security objectives. This is a regime that is not supporting care, is not invading its neighbors, is not pursuing weapons of mass destruction and is not brutalizing its people. Then the question was, could we leave a regime that could defend itself, govern itself, sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror? I think it has. There are no American troops there today, and it does govern itself. Economically, it is doing better. It is functioning, and it is opposing terror and not supporting terror.
Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Is there still sectarian violence? Absolutely. But part of the reason is the neighborhood, and particularly the war in Syria, is putting enormous pressure on Iraq today.
LYDEN: Well, isn't one of the requisites of a sovereign country that it can protect its borders? Do you think that you've left behind an Iraq that really can do that? You just mentioned Syria.
HADLEY: I think actually it can. There's been Iraqi activity on the Syrian border to try to seal that border. Iraq still, while it has a pretty formidable army, it still does not have the kind of air force that would be required. But I think this is a country actually that is taking responsibility for its own security both internally and externally.
LYDEN: Let me ask you, please, about some of the human toll on both sides because whatever objectives were met, it certainly came at tremendous cost. And...
HADLEY: No question about that.
LYDEN: ...was it what had been anticipated?
HADLEY: Clearly, it was not what was anticipated. Clearly, the situation got away from us in 2004, 2005 and 2006. And the cost of getting it back under control as a result of the surge decision was too high in terms of dollars, in terms of lives of Americans, in terms of lives of Iraqis. It's one of the reasons some of us have been arguing that we need to do something to bring the war in Syria to a close.
LYDEN: Stephen Hadley sees the possibility of a return to sectarian war in Iraq. Find out why as I continue my conversation with the former national security adviser in just a few minutes. This is NPR News.
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LYDEN: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, Sports Illustrated writer Michael McCann talks about his exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong, which began with a tweet. And Irish hatmaker Philip Treacy, better known as the creative hatter of the royal wedding.
First though, we reflect on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a continuation of my conversation with a close member of then-President George W. Bush's team, former national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
In 2006, a memo Hadley wrote for Cabinet-level officials caused waves when it was leaked to the press. At the time, Iraq had imploded in a wave of sectarian violence. In that memo, Hadley expressed concerns about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's willingness to resolve both sectarian fissures.
In my conversation with Stephen Hadley, I asked him if Prime Minister Maliki now is the sort of partner that the U.S. had envisioned and whether Iraq is truly an ally in the war on terror.
HADLEY: The memo was in 2006 when the president was trying to contemplate whether he should surge American forces and change our strategy. And the question was, is Maliki really a sectarian, or is he committed to an inclusive Iraq? And if he is, then why aren't we seeing it on the ground? Is it because he doesn't have the power to impose that kind of agenda, or he doesn't really know what's going on? What's with this person?
And I was sent over to try to get an initial take and to ask the kinds of questions that the president himself would have to answer about Maliki before he made the decision on the surge. And so the process of preparing the surge, which is a change of strategy at increasing our forces there, had a number of tests that Maliki had to pass. Would he say publicly to his country that he supported the surge and that it was going to be cross sectarian? Would Iraqi forces participate in the surge?
All these things that were a test as to whether Maliki would be a cross sectarian and inclusive leader. And the president concluded that Maliki would play that role. And at the end of the day, we had the surge, and it succeeded. Maliki has a lot of challenges. He's an imperfect leader. But I think he met the test that was set out in that memo. And the president was confident that Maliki would be a partner in the surge that ultimately brought an end to hostilities in Iraq and allowed U.S. troops to leave.
LYDEN: But many Sunnis call him a dictator.
HADLEY: They do. We tried very hard in 2007 and 2008 to have a government of national unity in which Sunni, Kurds and Shia would all participate. And a bargain was struck, and I think it was imperfect but pretty good in 2007, 2008. Unfortunately, what we're seeing today is that bargain is fraying. And it's fraying really for two reasons. One, the United States left completely in 2011, did not leave a residual force and, quite frankly, has not paid attention to Iraq. And I'll give you one example.
LYDEN: But part of that was Maliki's decision as well.
HADLEY: He did. It was a decision, but the withdrawal was - occurred pursuant to an agreement that actually President Bush negotiated. And the understanding was we'll look at the end of 2011. And if it looks like more forces are required, we can negotiate something at that time. And the Obama administration tried to. For various reasons, it did not work. The consequence, of course, is that Maliki and Iraq does not have the kind of support from the United States it needs because it faces two problems: encroachment from Iran and a sectarian war in Syria that when this largely Sunni opposition wins, the concern Maliki has is that that Sunni opposition will say, well, if we toppled Assad, let's topple Maliki. And civil war or civil sectarian war, if you will, returns to Iraq.
LYDEN: And you see that as a possibility.
HADLEY: I see that as a possibility, which is why a number of us have been saying we need to move more quickly to bring the war in Syria. So the basic deal we had, I think, is under stress. It's under stress from Iran. It's under stress from Syria. And the United States is not playing the role it needs to play in terms of helping Iraq get through this very difficult transition period.
LYDEN: That's Stephen Hadley. He's the former national security adviser under President George W. Bush, now a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thank you very much for coming in.
HADLEY: Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.